Fear and Loathing in Iquitos: Cynicism, Sincerity, and the Commercialization of Shamanism.

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Update, July 16, 2010: For another perspective on this check out this excellent blog, from “stillmind”!

Fear and Loathing in Lima and Iquitos:

Cynicism, Sincerity, and the Commercialization of Shamanism


During the summer of 2009, a number of coincidences led to me exploring Shamanism and traditional healing methods, including the use of “Ayahuasca” – a herbal drink that is made from a mixture of a vine from the Amazon and a seed.  Thus, I jumped at the chance to travel to Peru with my fiancée, where he had a former SFU student and friend that could host us, in the native country of the healing plants I had been studying.  Before the trip I was troubled by a comment about a Shaman that Goffman makes in The Presentation of Self of Everyday Life (1959), regarding his spectrum of “sincerity vs. cynicism” (See Appendix A).  He states, without having done any fieldwork, that the Shaman is only half-sincere about his/her beliefs, but sincere enough to make his/her followers believe (Goffman 1959:59).  I hypothesized that Goffman’s statement would prove to be a misnomer, and that Shaman are completely sincere about their practices, conduct and ethnography in Peru on the topic.  I expected attitudes towards Shamanism to be more cynical in the cosmopolitan metropolis of eight million, Lima, but then to turn towards sincerity in more rural areas of the country.

When we reached our last destination where we were to participate in an Ayahuasca ceremony or two, another, more socially urgent phenomenon quickly revealed itself – the advent of what some have called “drug voyeurism” (Wittig and Ascencios), and what I will term “Shamanic tourism”.  Thousands of North Americans, Australians, and Europeans were journeying to Iquitos – a remote city in the middle of the Amazon Jungle – to pay exorbitant rates for rich, white entrepreneurs to take them on an “Ayahuasca Tours”, often including tours through the Amazon Jungle to give them a peek at the lives of some of the last traditional Indigenous villages in the area.  This seemed to be a new form of colonialism, and I decided to make this a more prominent focus of the paper.


The methods employed to complete this project may be summarized under the heading “ethnography”, as my primary goal was to learn about another culture and set of beliefs, while immersed in that culture (Carroll 2004:170-190).  The ethnography employed several different qualitative methods: observation, participant observation, open-ended and casual interviews, as well as semi-structured interviews. Imastupid, our Canadian friend who is fluent in Spanish, acted as my translator. All interviews were anonymous, and started with the statement that I was writing a paper on Peruvian opinions of Shamanism for a project for my graduate studies program in Canada.  As I moved from city to city in Peru, different techniques proved to be more or less useful.  I also took along my iPhone, which acts as a wonderful tiny, concealable camera.

I did not record any interviews or write field notes in front of people, so I based the transcription of these entirely on “head notes” (Emerson 1995:17-35), which I expunged on to the page in the back seats of taxis and kept in my personal journal.  I also wrote about each day on my laptop, saved the data on a flash memory stick and then deleted it from my computer.  This device was kept locked in hostel rooms.


I began in Lima by trying to casually ask people at restaurants about what they thought of Shamanism.  No one was eager to jump into a conversation with a foreigner about the topic, which may have been indicative of the Liman attitude regarding Shamanism that I was able to find out about by being less up front.  The group that I was traveling with also proved to be problematic when trying to instigate conversations with “random” individuals, as it was comprised of me, my fiancée Üssholl, Imastupid, and her partner, Rigoberto a Native Peruvian.  Consequently, racism became an issue.  I did not know that Peru is considered a fairly “racist” country – against both Caucasians , as well as Native Peruvians who have dark skin. One conversation at a jewelry stand in Lima was cut short when one of the shopkeepers started to utter racist comments about all of us.

I discovered that the best way to successfully interview residents of Lima about their opinions of Shamanism was to: 1) stick with speaking to people in my general age cohort (25-40), 2) be a bit more creative 3) speak with people at restaurants and bars in the evening, most often after “everyone had a few”, usually beer, which improved my Spanish, and others’ English, as well as getting rid of some inhibition.

My first successful interview took place when we went to an underground tattoo shop where Rigoberto knew several artists, also Native Peruvians. In the basement of the shop, a huge mural hung on the wall – the image of a lizard tipped me off that it might be a take on traditional imagery based on Shamanism, and it presented an opportunity to shift the conversation, putting the artist in the spotlight.  I asked the artist about it, and as a result, he spoke of some of the basic tenets of Peruvian Shamanism (see Appendix B).As far as tattoos went, the shop’s customers were other Native Peruvians, and North American tourists who wanted to go home with a permanent token of the beautiful, illusory images of that originate in Shamanism.  This did not strike me as particularly strange at the time, but as we continued on our travels, it would prove to be part of the larger trend of “Shamanic tourism”.

Two more interviews took place in restaurant/bars, while waiting in line for drinks, during which time Imastupid and I spoke in English about Ayahuasca to see if anyone would “bite” and enquire or give an opinion (Appendix C).  Limans of our age group thought it was extremely strange to take Ayahuasca in this day and age – they thought that the history of Shamanism should be honoured, but that it was “crazy” to live in the jungle and rely on plants after the advent of modern medicine.  They expressed some sense of shame at first, but also a distinct respect for history.  The final interview took place at an upscale shop that sold traditional Ayahuasca mixing bowls, cups, and mortars and pestles at steep prices.  I feigned ignorance and asked a couple who were shopping there what these items were for – serving dishes?

“No, no, people don’t use this anymore, it is a decoration.  It was for medicine called Ayahuasca that people used to take before modern medicine.  A traditional Peruvian artifact.”

“Ayahuasca?  I’ve heard of that, I thought people still took it here.”

The couple found this hilarious, “No, not sane people.”

I found it strange that the couple were going to spend so much money on an artifact that they thought represented insanity in today’s world.  Peruvian attitudes towards Shamanism were proving to be more complex than I had thought they would be.  I expected that residents of Lima may laugh at the fact that Shamanism was still practiced and taken very seriously in more remote parts of the nation, but I did not expect this laughter to come from the mouths of people buying Ayahuasca paraphernalia.


Our next stop was the city of Ica, where we stayed at a hostel looking out on to the Huacachina desert oasis.  I was struggling with pain after a long bus ride, and I asked Imastupid if they might have something organic here that would help with my pain; she enthusiastically answered “yes!” and we went into the a store that resembled a pharmacy but sold herbal remedies made from local plants.  She told me that a herb called “Dragon’s Blood” would probably be most helpful with the pain I was experiencing due to a disease involving my reproductive organs, and verified with the shopkeeper that this was the case.  I purchased supplements containing the herb.  Rigoberto al picked up another herb, bought in bulk – a treatment for nausea.

I asked Imastupid if there were shops like these in Lima.  She told me that there were many, and that they probably outnumbered “modern” pharmacies.  I was very surprised to hear this after several citizens of Lima told me that modern medicine had replaced the “backwards” treatment of ailments with plants.  I expressed my confusion, but Imastupid was equally mystified, even after living in the country for an extended period of time. As for my personal experience with the Dragon’s Blood capsules, they had no effect, positive or negative, on my pain, nor did they affect my psyche, as Imastupid

warned me that they might.  Imastupid is incredibly sincere about the power of Shamanic plants and healing, so I had no reason to believe she had made up a fiction about using the pills herself and finding them useful.  Whether or not one experiences a “placebo effect” cannot be determined without scientific study.  Was the sincerity of her beliefs the reason the pills had reduced her menstrual pain?  I didn’t want to close my mind this early on, and I chalked it up to the degree of my pain and the seriousness of my disease.

The other Shamanic token we encountered in the area was the red seed of the Huayruru plant.  Quite rarely, the red seeds develop a small black spot that eventually grows to cover half the seed.  The seeds are associated with duality, and are believed to be able to attract good fortune, but more importantly, ward off “bad spirits”, such as those that may visit during an Ayahuasca ceremony.  Huacacina was a tourist destination, and stands of various handcrafted goods surrounded the path around the oasis – the seeds were being sold everywhere – on necklaces, bracelets, keychains, and such. The sellers of the accessories seemed incredibly sincere about the power of the seeds to ward off bad spirits that wish to harm the individual.  At one kiosk where I bought a pair of sandals and a t-shirt, I managed to pull off a whole transaction in Spanish, although it was obvious I had no prior knowledge of the language.  I managed to tell the man working the stand that I am fascinated by spirals, although I had no idea how to say “the golden ratio”.  When I told him this he was extremely enthused – a look of, “you understand too!” crossed his face.  He was insistent on making a gift for me – a pendant of a spiral with a small seed that turns into a flower. Imastupid and Rigoberto both agreed that the seeds were very important – they both kept some on themselves at all times.


The city of Iquitos, bordering on the Amazon Jungle, known for being the largest non-rural area where Shamanism is still practiced, was a two hour flight from Lima.  As the plane landed, there was an incredible view of the Amazon River snaking through the jungle (see Appendix D).  Rigoberto was on a later flight, and Imastupid led us to a taxi where she sat up front with the driver – she had lived in Iquitos for a period of time, was familiar with the hostels there, and she could help navigate.  It was not long into the ride that I heard the word “Ayahuasca” mentioned, first by the cab driver.

This was the first tip-off that North Americans who came to Iquitos, very often came there to experiment with Ayahuasca.  The only words of their conversation I could understand were “Ayahuasca”, which quickly seemed to become the theme of the conversation, the driver looking very amused, and the names of American entrepreneurs whom Imastupid had told me about during previous casual interviews – namely “John Smith” and “Pedro Jones”.  Smith was an older man and had been bringing people from North America to Iquitos to take Ayahuasca for about seven years, after his family left him due to his extreme intake of liquor.  Pedro Jones (a.k.a. Carlos Tanner) is in his late 20s and uses Facebook to advertise to a certain cohort of the population – that with interest in ethnobotanicals and the anthropology of medicine – charging steep fees for “Ayahuasca Retreats”.  I did not expect Imastupid to collaborate with the driver to get the contact information for these North American men, one of whom we were to drink Ayahuasca with as early as the next day.  Imastupid had Native Peruvian contacts in Iquitos at one time, but hadn’t been there for two years.  After finding a hostel Imastupid took us to the most trustworthy restaurant in town  – The Yellow Rose of Texas.  This was the first restaurant in Peru that had a North American name, and we were in a much more remote location than any of our previous ones.  It was also owned by an American entrepreneur – a Texan who had a similar family and substance consumption history as Shmith’s, who had escaped to Iquitos.  We took a motocab to the establishment, which was indeed, a little piece of Texas in the Amazon Jungle (see Appendix E).  It could have been a cheesy tourist destination in the state of Texas, if it hadn’t been for the waitresses, who looked to be around age twelve or thirteen, were all Native Peruvian, and who were wearing incredibly short skirts with a tight-fitting Texas themed t-shirt. While we were waiting for our drinks, I looked above at the seemingly endless Texas paraphernalia and noticed a sign advertising the “Ayahuasca Diet” – the first blatant sign of “Shamanic Tourism” (Appendix F).Imastupid had told me about the Ayahuasca Diet before, during casual interviews with her about the experience of the ceremony, although I had certainly not expected it to appear on my menu, not only at restaurants, but at our final place of accommodation, La CasaFitzcaraldo (Appendix G).  She had told me that before “taking ceremony, you are supposed to diet for about a week.”  The diet consisted mostly of boiled fish, which seemed rational considering the nearness of the Amazon River.  She had also told me about the importance of remaining celibate for “at least a week” before “taking ceremony”, so that one could experience the Ayahuasca trip more fully, in terms of its physical and psychological healing properties, but also, one who completed a cleanse was more prone to being able to shift planes of reality and share in common visions within the group during the ceremony.  I followed her advice.

I became unsettled after seeing the sign at The Yellow Rose of Texas – it didn’t help that two older American men at the table next to ours were having a loud, offensive conversation about Peruvian women, and – taking Ayahuasca.  I felt kind of like I had walked into a metro/subway/train station and several people were trying to shove flyers in my hands on my way to the escalator that said “Take Ayahuasca!”  I had expected that our experience with Imastupid would be discreet, and take place with someone she knew well, as she had lived in Iquitos for several months, and experimented with the diet and living in the Jungle herself.  Imastupid had started to leave messages on the voice mailboxes of John Smith and Pedro  Jones.  This was not the kind of “spiritual experience” I had been expecting –Ima had told me earlier that she “hated Pedro Jones” – now she was leaving desperate messages on his machine to look into taking part in one of his “Retreats” or a smaller ceremony – I did not expect to be one of very many North Americans in Iquitos to experience an Ayahuasca ceremony, nor did I expect it to be a commercial event.

Before I could ask Imastupid if her personal contacts were no longer reachable, and why she had been calling John and Pedro, Rigoberto a arrived and Ima suggested that we move on to the street around the corner, the “main drag” which faced the River.  We had all had a fair number of drinks in the extreme, humid heat and Imastupid laughed as she told us she was going to “show us the darkside”, and “what we would be fighting against during the upcoming ceremony”.  The strip was the first in Peru where almost everyone there was North American or Australian.  At the bar we were at, there was a young Caucasian gay male couple, a group of young Australian men, and a retiree who quickly picked up two Peruvian prostitutes, who spoke fluent English.

If this were the “darkside”, would we experience its opposite as well when we took part in an Ayahuasca ceremony?  What was this place, the only place we had been where tourists outnumbered locals at all, and they did by far – before this, we had barely heard one word of English spoken in the country.  It seemed all tourists were watching “the show”, not only that going on at the table next to us, but also the stream of child beggars as young as three that were pawing at the arms of tourists like us.  There were also local artists selling jewelry they had made, but nothing it was like that we had encountered at Huacacina.  For example, one Peruvian man, who claimed that he lived in the jungle by himself for periods of months before returning to town to sell his art, was very persistent that we buy a skeleton of a large snake, which one could wear as a necklace.  We told him that it was very impressive but that we couldn’t take something like that back to Canada, and he subsequently insisted that we accept a strange gift from him, which he gave us with a sinister expression on his face – a little wire sculpture of twisted roots forming a flower.  For the first time during the trip, I stared to feel very unsettled, afraid even, though I did not know of what.

The next morning I woke up to find that despite eating at The Yellow Rose, we all had “traveler’s diarrhea”.  The rest of the group was back on their feet the next day, but I was not well.  I had become delirious, having horrible half-waking nightmares about my family.  After two days of this, I decided that we needed to return to Canada a week early, and that I needed to see a doctor.

A number of bizarre events transpired that day that made me feel like the Jungle was playing tricks on us, or that we were in a “supercharged” kind of area.  Üssholl and I woke up to find that my alarm clock had reset itself to Vancouver time, and it was precisely 4:00 am, a time that both of us often wake up or go to sleep at, a synchronic event.  I began attempting to deal with our travel insurance broker over the phone, and just as I let out a scream of frustration, Imastupid knocked on the door of our hostel room.

“Do you still have that thing that that guy with the snake skeleton gave you?”

“Yes it’s in my purse.”

“Destroy it.  Get rid of it immediately.  You should never accept a present from a stranger like that.”

We left the tiny hostel room for the hospital where I was treated for dehydration and e.coli poisoning, and was sent on my way with antibiotics after being strapped to an I.V. for two hours.  I realized at this point that with my existing medical conditions, I probably hadn’t been fit to travel, at least not fit to participate in “adventure tourism”.  We checked into the luxurious Casa FitzCarraldo to get a break from hot, noisy hostels. Imastupid assured me that the coming ceremony would be good for my body, as it purges one of harmful bacteria.  She had gotten in touch with one of her “other contacts” and found out about a more “authentic” series of ceremonies that we could attend, which would involve taking Ayahuasca three nights in a row, however the site was deep in the Jungle, and would require a twelve hour boat ride down the Amazon in the blaring sun, and then a several kilometer walk through the Jungle at night.  I decided that there was no way my body could withstand such a journey, thus, we chose the other option – to take part in one of John Smith’s ceremonies the following evening, paying $40 USD (more than the average worker’s two-week paycheque in Peru) per person.

The Ceremony:  John Smith had an expansive estate just outside the city of Iquitos.  The ceremony was to take place in the backyard, where Smith had a traditional hut built by Natives for the purpose of holding the events.  Imastupid and Smith and caught up, and my attempts to intervene to ask questions were not very fruitful.  I asked him why he had decided to start this business in the middle of the Jungle, and if he thought he was giving people the gift of enlightenment of some sort.  Imastupid and him looked at each other and laughed.  “You will see,” he said.

The ceremony began when all who had made arrangements and payments to take part had arrived – about twenty people, only one of whom was Peruvian, the rest of the group was comprised of Caucasian North Americans and Australians.  They appeared to be similar in age to us (25-40 range) and their styles of dress suggested that they belonged to a counterculture movement or at least subscribed to the doctrine of non-conformity, which included several bleached blonde dreadheads and interesting handmade clothing.  This was not the crowd I had expected to share the experience of the Ayahuasca ceremony with – I had assumed I would be in the company of Native Peruvians who had been through the experience many times before.  The mood in the room was a boisterous one of excitement to try something new, not the calm that I had envisioned.

Before the ceremony began, Smith, who was also going to participate, gave us some instructions.  Once the Shaman entered the room we were to be silent and focus on her making the muddy substance from sacred plants.  He told us that the drink would be disgusting and make us throw up, but that this was an important part of the “La Purga” experience, and we shouldn’t fight the urge, nor should we try to fight off “negative energy or visions” during the “trip”, as doing so would make things worse, while being open to these feelings would allow one to work through their demons, and “see the light in the darkness”.  The communal bowl of Ayahuasca would be passed around until it was empty, and one must take as big of a drink of the cocktail as possible each time it reached them.  He told us to relax and enjoy the trip –if we gave in to the experience completely, “we would share common visions with each other.”

Imastupid had previously told me that one often does not achieve this level of connectedness with others during ceremony until they have participated in one several times – Smith was no doubt a salesman, also speaking of how this was a “once in a lifetime experience” that “had the power to change human consciousness on a mass scale”, encouraging us to “tell friends about the experience”, and “recommend their next vacation be to Peru.”  Throughout his speech he maintained an air of self-importance, like he knew about a secret that most are oblivious to – I felt kind of like I was at an event for travelers to be advertised time-share real estate.  He was advertising his business quite blatantly, also citing his seniority  as the reason that the ceremonies he held were more enlightening and “traditional” than those held by other entrepreneurs in the city.

The Shaman entered the room and finally there was silence.  She was a very slight, Native Peruvian woman, wearing the traditional red face paint that Shaman always do during ceremony.  In this Shamanist culture, there is a belief that colours are associated with different elements and aspects of life.  Red is associated with both female fertility and the Earth – the Earth Mother that continually reproduces the environment of our worldly existence.  Later, when I had a brief few minutes to ask her questions, she told me that red was used, ‘so that the Shaman stays grounded.  The Shaman can get lost in the spirit world, but the red is a reminder that s/he is still living in “this world”.’  Colour is believed to start in the brain and encompass the cosmos, thus it can act as a vehicle to return to an Earthly state of consciousness.

She immediately began the preparation of the drink; it was well after dark now, and the hut was dimly lit with candles.  She stripped the Caapi Vine, “The Vine of the Soul” down to the core of the plant, and crushed seeds  with a mortar and pestle.  The scrapings from the plant and the powder from the seeds was mixed with water in the large, traditional wooden bowl for a long time, until it became what looked like a greenish brown, muddy-textured paste.  The Shaman started to chant very softly while stirring the brew, and looked like she was summoning some kind of spiritual assistance in making it a perfect consistency.  When she was satisfied, she took a moment to meditate before taking the first drink from the bowl, and passing it to the left.

As the bowl was passed around sounds of disgust could be heard coming out of the mouths of the other participants, as it came closer to reaching me I could hear the sounds of people struggling to swallow. I was humbled when I took my first drink and it was exponentially more disgusting and strong in taste than the powdered vine and seed mix I tried the previous summer.  The bowl kept coming around, everyone must have taken about ten gulps.  The sounds of some people wretching could already be heard while I took my last few gulps.  One does not “get used to” the taste of Ayahuasca as one takes more; rather, each mouthful is harder to swallow than the last.  I waited for several minutes feeling a little buzzed, which could have just been the adrenaline rush of getting the mixture down in a timely manner in front of all these strangers.  Soon, I felt it creeping back up my esophagus, and I joined Üssholl and Rigoberto in a corner of the hut where he and another young man were already vomiting.  The thick liquid that looked black in the dark kept coming out of my mouth.  I felt a bit giggly for a moment just looking at the scene – most people were still vomiting and had not returned to their seats yet, but eventually we all did.  I did not vomit again, although some others continued to vomit regularly throughout the ceremony.

I was certainly not in a social mood, I felt like curling up in a comfortable place with my eyes closed, and I curled up in the fetal position on the ground.  Üssholl seemed to be feeling the same way, as he rested against a log with his head back and his eyes closed.  Imastupid and Rigoberto, who have both taken Ayahuasca many, many times (Imastupid estimated 70 or 80), were more interested in interacting with the group.  For a moment I had a very bad feeling about being a “loner”, and about my general difficulty with standing my own at a party with a bunch of strangers.

“But you didn’t come here to party with a bunch of other North Americans,” I thought – but it was more than a thought.  I felt like Mother Earth or the Cosmos were comforting me, and I closed my eyes again.  I lay there for a long time, and did not “see” anything in particular with my eyes closed, although I did feel like something was “different” – instead of darkness, there seemed to be a depth to my closed eye vision, and kaleidoscopic colours and variances in light could be seen, although they were not consistent like the spinning of a toy.  I consider “visions” to be seeing things that are not usually there with one’s eyes open – when I opened my eyes, nothing looked different, but I became nauseous.

I felt a sense of peace with the Earth on which I lay, and a connectedness with the Universe.  I felt grateful for all that the Earth gives us, and the place where I lay in the mossy dirt seemed incredibly wonderful.  Whereas when I have tried other psychedelic drugs they have produced racing thoughts – a desire to write things down and have deep conversations – Ayahuasca had the complete opposite effect: I felt completely open to anything that the plant or the night air or the Cosmos or the goddesses, not other human beings, had to teach me.  I felt very content, and thoughtful – although it felt like I was not in control of my own thoughts but being guided by “something or someone else”, most likely an “Earth Goddess”, archetypal-type figure – again issues about my family arose, and I felt very in touch with “the ancestors”.

It is very difficult to put what I mean by this into words.  I felt in touch with the cyclical nature of things, including life and death, and the sacrifices that those who came before us have made.  I felt like anything but a “loner” – I felt like I was in the great company of caring people who had lived in much different times.  I would have been happy to stay lying there until I fell asleep, but the Shaman started walking around the circle, speaking with individuals and groups.  I was curious – this was not a common practice during ceremony according to what I had read on the topic beforehand, but I wondered if she was going to help a group of us or all of us share a common, open-eyed vision.  The possibility seemed completely plausible at the time, although I still did not have much desire to open my eyes.

Finally she reached Üssholl and me.  She asked us if we could see “the red heart with half of it coloured purple” – she said that she could see this image when she sat with us.  Neither Üssholl nor I could see anything.  She asked if that image had a meaning of some sort.  I immediately thought of my engagement ring, which shows two “sides” of a heart welded together, the pieces of the heart made of purple amethyst.  I was immediately suspicious that she had seen my ring and was making some kind of statement about our relationship – perhaps that the partnership was unequal, or even “cursed” in some kind of astrological way.  I kept my mouth shut, however, as Üssholl thought it represented the “wounded healer” – this was interesting, as the Tamil healer that I saw last summer told me that I had great healing energy that had been misused and abused.  Her treatment of yogic massage got rid of pain I had been experiencing in my hands for a few months.  I recalled that experience fondly, but could not relate it to this one in any other way than some sense of “everything is connected”, which went along well with the connectedness with the cosmos I felt.  I was tired and overwhelmed and felt like I needed to retreat back into my own consciousness.  Üssholl was feeling the same way, and as we lay together, I felt slightly euphoric until we fell asleep.

The Shaman was still there when we awoke, as she had slept in the room with us, and Imastupid said it would not be rude to try to speak with her.  We approached her as she was packing up her things.  I wanted to know about how and why she had become a Shaman, and why she had chosen to work with Smith.  She seemed slightly embittered about the latter question, and did not want to speak about it, other than giving us a knowing smile.  As planned, I was not taking notes or recording the discussion, therefore this is my summary of her story:

She had grown up in a small village in the Amazon Jungle, and from birth her fellow villagers thought she had an exceptional sense of intuition and was naturally endowed with healing powers.  At the age of twelve or thirteen she began a sort of apprenticeship with the elder Shaman in the village, journeying deep into the jungle for weeks at a time to learn about the different plants and the healing properties of specific species.  She had no problem with the fact that a Shaman had to remain celebate – she didn’t have romantic feelings for men or women, but preferred the connection she felt when having a conversation with someone who was struggling with a problem, during which she felt an incredibly intimate connection – like she could see into their soul and empathize deeply.  Her desire to help people overpowered other desires.  She fasted for periods of time, and stuck strictly to the Ayahuasca diet.  She did this for over ten years before she conducted her own first ceremony, after participating in over a thousand with the elder she worked with.  She looked to be about fifty years old now.  She got a childlike look in her eyes when she first recalled the first time she realized she was able to recognize, just from the “aura” of people participating in a ceremony, whether or not they had sex the night before (a faux-pas), and if the sex had been out of love, or a negative experience for one or both of the people involved.

I desperately wanted to know why she had left her village, or if she still returned there.  Was Smith providing some kind of support for her family?  The possibilities ran through my head, but I respected her initial expression indicating that she did not want to talk about this aspect of her career.  She seemed exhausted, and we thanked her profusely and let her be.

Imastupid urged us not to stick with our decision to return to Canada early, as she wanted us to make the trip to experience a more authentic ceremony, for both the sake of my project and because she wanted to show us what it was like, but I was not up for it.  That day (the day after the ceremony) I felt a sense of well-being, and a confidence in my decision that my research was done.  I could see how Ayahuasca could be good for people who were struggling with psychological problems, only this feeling was gone by the next day.  I could recall the “oneness” I felt during the ceremony, but aside from this term, it was impossible for me to describe the thoughts I had or what I had been “taught” during the experience.  Still, I felt it had been a positive experience, but a very personal one.

My research was done as not only I believed entirely in the sincerity of the Shaman after our short conversation and witnessing her concentration while making the Ayahuasca, but also because I had unearthed a new phenomenon that I felt it was even more important to write about – “Shamanic Tourism”.  One young man wearing an American liberal propaganda t-shirt (see Appendix H) who had participated in the same ceremony with us was our the plane, but he did not acknowledge us at all.  We certainly had not had a great collective or communal experience.  Virtually as soon as we got home in Vancouver, Üssholl started vomiting – we went to our family doctor the next day, and sure enough, he still had e.coli bacteria in his system – La Purga had not purged him of that.

Analysis: Sincerity/Cynicism, and The Commercialization of Shamanism

After returning to Canada and reflecting on our experience with “Shamanic Tourism” I became more and more disturbed about the exploitation of the Peruvian Shaman and the sacred Ayahuasca ceremony.  The characters we encountered in Iquitos, including the Texan businessman and John Smith were wealthy men, but I saw no evidence of any contribution they made to the largely impoverished peoples of Iquitos.  I decided to research the phenomenon further.

As far as the attitudes of sincerity or cynicism about Shamanism were concerned, my hypothesis that individuals living in Lima were much more cynical proved to be correct.  Elsewhere, sincerity seemed to be the norm among Peruvians, as in the case of the red seeds and commonly sold herbal remedies.  I did not at all doubt the sincerity of the Shaman, although I did not see the “vision” she wished to share with me and Üssholl.  The effort that she put into her craft, the commitments and sacrifices she had made to become a Shaman, and the passion with which she still spoke about these things after a long career made me believe she was being completely honest, and believed entirely in her healing powers – she was proud for having them and wished to use them altruistically.  The ambience of the ceremony had perhaps made me suspicious when I thought she may have just looked at my ring – it reminded me of a sideshow, where tourists were being ripped off.  However, I don’t believe that the Shaman was ripping anyone off – the North American entrepreneurs were the ones in that business.

As I, myself, had traveled to Peru in part to participate in an Ayahuasca ceremony, I experienced some cognitive dissonance when I decided that “Shamanic Tourism” was a negative phenomenon, but I had thought I only had an “in” because we had a friend in Peru that spoke Spanish and whose partner was a Native Peruvian.  I expected to have an intimate experience with my friends and other Native Peruvians who could teach me things about their healing rituals and values.  Instead, we ended up paying a lot (in Peruvian currency) to participate in a “tourist event” with other (assumedly well-to-do) “white people”, many of whom did not seem to be seeking a true learning experience, but were looking for a new psychedelic to “get high” and “trip out” on.

To find out how far this “Shamanic Tourism” trend went, I first conducted a Google search, typing in the terms “Ayahuasca” and “tourism”.  The search produced approximately 19,700 results.  I skimmed through the first twenty or so pages of results – all sites were either advertising tours to Peru to take Ayahuasca, or forums discussing the topic.  It seemed I was in the company of tens of thousands of foreigners who travel to the country for the sole purpose of taking Ayahuasca.  On the fourth search page the name of the city “Iquitos” turned up.  Aside from luxury cruise tours down the Amazon River, Iquitos’ biggest source of tourism revenue, or at least the focus of their advertising, was “Ayahuasca tours”.

One page called “The Ayahuasca Foundation” (http://ayahuascafoundation.com) caught my eye.  The title made me think it may provide a more comprehensive viewpoint on the Ayahuasca experience than the forums on which Westerners talked about how much they “tripped out” in Peru.  To my dismay, the site was dedicated to advertising Ayahuasca tours – especially tours in Iquitos.  At the bottom of the page, the name “Pedro Jones” came up as a contact to call if one was interested in taking part in a tour – it turned out that he was the owner of the site.  The site was advertising tours so pricey that our $40 USD a pop seemed like pocket change.  A six week “introductory course” during which one would attend ten ceremonies cost $2680, not including airfare.  If one enjoyed the “introductory course” they could return to take an “intermediate” or “advanced” course, which were $1000 more and $2000 more respectively, even though the same amount of time was spent in the Jungle region around Iquitos for all “courses” (see Appendix I for examples of advertising images on the site).  Pedro Jones’s personal site, which was liked to this original page, was more disturbing.  On the front page (http://www.ayahuascafoundation.org/Ayahuayra/main2.htm), the dangerously false statement is made that “all” can be healed or cured through the Ayahuasca experience:

“Some of us need help with physical problems like Ulcers, Acid Reflux, STDs, or Cancer, while others have emotional issues like Depression, Bulimia, OCD, or Addiction, ?and some of us just need direction in life, to understand our past and destiny.?No matter what the disease, illness, affliction, problem, issue, or obstacle…?all can be healed.” (Jones 2010)

Tanner is charging $650 USD for an 8-day “healing tour” or $850 USD for a 12-day tour.  Advertising that this includes accommodations in Iquitos and the Amazon, as well as transportation costs within and around the city may sound enticing, but the cost of the average taxi ride across the city of Iquitos was three Soles – approximately $1 USD.  Hostels and hotels in the city were about $15 USD per night.  Tanner must be quite the wealthy young man.  I saw a new kind of colonization going on in profiting off of traditional Peruvian Shamanism, taking tourists into the home of Indigenous Peruvians – the Amazon Jungle – without invitation, where they would take pictures like those who toured the Picadilly Circus in the 17th Century, and take the plants of this environment and home that did not belong to them.

I turned to academic journals to investigate whether or not others had studied the phenomenon of “Shamanic Tourism”, and found that other scholars had also encountered the industry over the past ten years (ex/ Wittig and Ascencios, Mieni), and that many of them were also deeply disconcerted by this new invasion of the Amazon Jungle.  One article explores the potential risk to the health of the Indigenous residents of the area, due to the influx of tourists that authors Witzig and Ascencios call “drug voyeurs” and “American survivalists” (Witzig and Ascencios 1999:67).  In the late 1990s this new genre of tourism brought foreigners to traditional Urarina villages for the first time where they took unsolicited pictures, and took hallucinogenic plants, not only Ayahuasca, but San Pedro Cactus and various wild mushrooms.  In the cases studied by Witzig and Ascencios, no permission was asked for by, or granted to the American agencies responsible for the tours, including the two-week “Wild Mushroom Traveling Road Show” (ibid.), and the Indigenous peoples self-reported the outbreak of new respiratory diseases and gastrointestinal ills soon after the tours began.

Other scholars go as far as calling this “the new imperialism” (Mieni 1999:13).  Indeed, the invasion of North Americans or any other foreigners into villages where a certain culture has existed for thousands of years, that culture will undoubtedly be changed, even if it is not destroyed.  Anthropologist Alison Hawthorne-Deming summarizes these circumstances eloquently, stating, “When a place becomes a playground, long-standing equations between the land and the people are rewritten.” (Hawthorne-Deming 1998:16)  She proposes a solution to the ethical dilemma that I appreciate – that tourism should always benefit the local peoples in the area of concern (Hawthorne-Deming 1998:204).  However, I don’t think this is the best solution – even if the advent of “drug voyeurism” in the late 1990s had brought some financial benefit to the Urarina peoples, which they likely would not want as their culture is collectivist and they live off the land – it would still have brought the diseases to the villages never exposed to them before, which resulted in several deaths.


I think that the solution to resolving the negative impacts of Shamanic Tourism is to put a complete stop to it before it becomes an even more common form of “adventure tourism”, although I do not know what kinds of laws would have to be passed to create this reality, or even if it is at all realistic, considering the continuing prominence of “sex tourism”.  I think that young individuals who are interested in experimenting with plants from the Amazon or Africa or Arizona should do so at home.  I do not think it is ethical for anyone but an experienced anthropologist, certainly not an American or Canadian businessman, to participate in transactions between the Native peoples of a small, poor country, and rich white individuals.  One can order all of the psychedelic plants one may find in Peru off of the Internet.  Just as a Peruvian citizen or Shaman may be cynical, sincere, or both about their beliefs and intentions, tourists approach their destination of choice based on their attitudes towards travel, towards very foreign cultures, and towards the purpose of psychedelics.  Thus, the last of the Amazonian tribes are being violated by Western tourists, many of whom travel to this remote destination without any knowledge of the harm they may be causing, the local cultural mores that should be respected, and the total inappropriateness of photographing foreign peoples without their permission.  The commercialization of Shamanism follows other late-neoliberal trends of subcultures being manipulated for the sake of individual profit resulting in negative consequences (ex/ Anderson 2009), and an extreme one, as it involves the exploitation of the resources of a foreign nation.  The spiritual experiences I had experimenting with Ayahuasca were equally as enjoyable in my own backyard as John Smith’s, and next time I am able to investigate a foreign culture by travel, I will “Google” a few things first, and think twice about the ethics of my plans.

Works Cited

Anderson, T.  2009.  Rave Culture: The Alteration and Decline of a Philadelphia Music Scene. Philadelphia: Temple Press.

Carroll, W.  2004.  Critical Strategies for Social Research.  Toronto: Canadian Scholar’s Press.

Emerson et al.  2005.  Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Goffman, E.  1959.  The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hawthorne Deming, Alison.  1998.  The Edges of the Civilized World: A Journey in Nature and Culture.  New York: Picador.

Mieni, J.  1999 .  “Tourist Traps.”  The Women’s Review of Books, 16, 6, 13-14.

Witzig, R. and Ascencios, M.  1999.  “The Road to Indigenous Extinction: Case Study of Resource Exportation, Disease Importation, and Human Rights Violations against the Urarina in the Peruvian Amazon.  Health and Human Rights, 4, 1, 61-81.

Appendix A


ex/ a medical student who has just entered med school and things that s/he is getting into the career of saving lives

ex/ a young woman who is extremely passionate about the anti-car movement, and has promised herself always to use public transit

The Shaman?

Ex/ A medical school graduate who has realized that most of her/peers are only in the profession for financial benefits, and that the “health care” system also revolves around cutting costs and supporting the big business of pharmaceuticals over and above saving lives

Ex/ A teenage girl who refuses to learn how to drive because her family only has one car, while all of her friends’ families have two, thus she would never have access to a vehicle


Appendix B

“That is some amazing artwork, did you paint that?”

“Yes, yes.”  The young man was notably impressed that I mentioned the mural and appreciated its beauty.

“Does it relate to Shamanism?”

“You do not see the Shaman?”

Laughter ensued.  I looked more carefully at the image and realized it was an optical illusion – the images of a lizard and an evil looking elf-like character with blood coming from its mouth combined in the middle to create an image of a wise looking old man with dark skin and stretched, pierced ears.

“Oh!  I can see him now!  What does this picture mean?”

“The Shaman is in the middle because he balances these other spirits.  He can speak to the lizard and the…[? The name of the elf-like figure could not be translated into English].”

“Do you mean he can actually have a conversation with the lizard?”

“Yes, oh yes.  Shaman can speak with all living spirits.  Shaman talk to plants, and only he can hear what they say.  They communicate using energy – life energy – do you know this thing?”

“Yes, definitely!  Wow.  How does this affect the Shaman?  What healing effects can he provide others with by speaking to plants and animals?”

“The Shaman makes a sacrifice, he takes on the spiritual difficulties of others in order to resolve them.  He has to be careful not to get stuck in a bad place.  He feels what others feel, and he knows what bad spirits are bothering them.  Then he can speak with these spirits, the most common are ant spirits.  He resolves the problem by acting as a…mediator between the spirit world and the physical world.”

“Can you describe what you mean by ‘ant spirits’?”

The man shakes his head laughing and looks downwards.  “No, no one, not even the Shaman understands the ant spirits.  He understands better than I ever could or you ever could, but no one can understand completely.”

I was beginning to become puzzled, so I shifted the conversation once again.

“Have you been healed by a Shaman before?”

“Oh, yes.  Yes, many, many times.  In the village I grew up in as a child…”  His eyes lit up.  Unfortunately our cab home had arrived and we had to leave quickly.

Appendix C

“Oh, you will get so sick!”  The couple started laughing at us.

“Have you taken Ayahuasca before?”

“No, no.  That is a backwards culture, it is like mythology.  A nice story that was important in the past, but now we have science and medicine, our culture has advanced.  (Laughter)  Stick with marijuana.”

“How do you know that it doesn’t have any benefits if you haven’t tried it before?”

The woman eagerly stepped in, “My Father told me about trying this when he was younger, and all it did was make him horribly sick.  It was the worst thing he ever tasted.  He said he saw some things floating around the room while the Shaman was chanting, but that it was just like having a bad flu?  Or a bad fever, yes, where you are delirious.”

“That doesn’t sound too pleasant!  So you think Shamanism should not be a part of Peruvian culture anymore?”

“It shouldn’t still be a part.  It is an important to the history of Peru – I have respect for rituals that helped people survive in the distant past, when things were harder.  There are healing plants in our country , but now scientists know how to use them in a much better way.  They can extract the medicine.  You do not have to throw up so much!”

Appendix D

Appendix E

Appendix F

Appendix G

Appendix H

Appendix I

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jenniferlreimerFear and Loathing in Iquitos: Cynicism, Sincerity, and the Commercialization of Shamanism.

12 Comments on “Fear and Loathing in Iquitos: Cynicism, Sincerity, and the Commercialization of Shamanism.”

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  6. Berry

    Reviewing this post from yesterday, I seem quite 'preachy'… It was late and I know from experience I become blunt/honest when tired or highly activated. I apologize if my post was offensive.

    1. storiesandscars

      No worries, my friend! — hehe, if you haven't noticed yet, I can very easily write like that as well when I'm excited…add that with the fact that I was a university instructor for several years, and I sometimes review my writing and it sounds like a goddamn sermon. 😉 I don't think your comment is anywhere close to that.

      Your anyalysis is very interesting, and I agree with the philosophy you base it upon very much. I find the common statement/advice given to individuals before they take a hallucinogen/psychedelic of any sort, that the state of mind they are in before they take the drug is very important, as it will paint one's experience, to be very true. If one is in a negative headspace before taking any hallucinogen, in my own experience anyhow – and watching those of others, that negativity is reflected during the trip. Unlike other types of drugs where one may "get high" to improve one's "mood", I find it very important to be in a good, positive headspace before the trip to be able to fully enjoy it. Or, like you said, be very open to what the drug has to teach you. When I did Ayahuasca here in Vancouver, mixing it myself from powdered B. Caapi Vine and ground Syrian Rue, I was actually in a bit of a mental crisis – I had a panic attack on the train earlier that day, and went to see a doctor at the Simon Fraser University (as I was a grad student at the time) clinic, and he prescribed me four NEW psych meds, including beta blockers. I took a beta blocker, and the complete lack of feeling I experienced made me feel suicidal. I was soooo fed up with western medicine. I had the ingredients waiting for the right time in a drawer in my kitchen :) , and I decided that this was the time – and the difference was actually eerily precise to what you describe. I drank the mixture later that evening with the mindset of, "what can this teach me?", and I was completely open to whatever may come. Writing this, I wonder if that is why that time, I felt like Ayahuasca was unlike any other psychedelic, as instead of having racing thoughts – you know, that feeling of "I wish I had a pen so I could write this all down and seal it in a jar or something, but my hand wouldn't go fast enough, and it would take away from the experience! Damn!" – I experienced the complete opposite: my mind was so clear and free of my own thoughts, my own analysis of the world – I was in a space where new revelations could enter me, caressing my psyche. I truly felt like I had connected with my ancestral roots, and indeed, learned things that still today (this was about two years ago) are incredibly influential in my everyday life. I had a new understanding of my actual living and immediate family, and a new respect for the struggles of those that came before me. That was also when it came to me that I had been put in the position of "matriarch" of my family at age 13, and this allowed me to forgiv3e myself for a whole lot of screw-ups (an understatement!) I had made in my later teens and early twenties. I felt incredibly loved, and learned to love myself in a new way.

      In Peru, however, I was blocked by multifarious exigent circumstances. Our hostess there, a friend of my partner at the time, downright DESPISED me, and was doing everything in her power to ruin my experiences – not only the Ayahuasca experience, but my experience of the country in general, particularly that of Iquitos. In my interviews with her, she gave a very negative image of Iquitos, and things I saw there myself agreed with her description. Little girls were being sexually exploited by American tycoons, and the incredible spirituality of the Native peoples of Peru, including the experience of taking Ayahuasca and the insights that could be gained from the process were being advertised, in a rather violently forceful manner of marketing, as just another "drug trip" for wealthy foreigners to try…the whole environment was incredibly negative, as were my interactions with this hostess (a Canadian national who had been living there for a few years, and taken Ayahuasca close to 80 times herself), increasingly so, reaching a climax when on our final day there she took off from our place of accomodation (the only fancy place we had stayed during the whole trip – i.e. the only place that cost more than $10-$20 USD/night!) without paying the bill – not caring if we were stuck paying for her/her boyfriend's stay as well as our own – and gave us no instructions on how to get to the airport, as we had to fly 2 hours from Iquitos to Lima on a domestic airline to catch our plane back to Canada…and NO ONE spoke English, and whereas when I travelled in Mexico I found my French useful, since it was so akin to Spanish, to reach some common ground and be able to communicate with locals, in Peru this was useless. It was a very particular dialect…I would like to share the most trippy part of this whole experience with you as well – I spoke about it in my presentation, when I submitted this paper for a class ("Fear and Loathing in Iquitos…"). I will do this over e-mail as you requested, and copy this message as well just in case you don't stop by to see it here. I would very much like to continue this conversation, and talk about other psychedelic experiences as well!

      Thanks so much for your input!
      scars XO

  7. guy thomas

    I went to Peru, Depressed for over half my life. Suicidal for the past 10 years. So consumed by fear I couldnt' event kill myself even tho i was 100% sure it was the correct decsion for the past 5 years. I was escaping in every moment. sex, drugs, i was a professional poker player living in vegas, what most people in america would be envious of. eating at expensive restraunts for every meal, going to massage parlors, big house with pool with waterfalls in the back. food had no taste, getting a handjob at a massage parlor became a chore. Since i couldnt suicide, i did what i wanted to do 2nd most in life. DMT. AYahuasca in peru was the only way for me.
    Book long story short:
    I'm happy, I embrace the moment, fallen angels from the spirit world making me expereince fear at all times in my entire being. Ayahuasca sent me on a process and removed many of these demons. We can actually remove these demons without ayahuasca. But i would of not been able to remove these on my own without spending 2 months in the amazon.
    I was a hardcore atheist for 17 years, with an intuitive mind for the mathematics and strategy games. You go to peru, you do ayahuasca in the jungle, and you will be communicating with a plant being that is of infinite intelligence. 1500$ 3000$, are you kidding me? I spent 1000$ a night at strip clubs and that was the most therapuetic thing i ever came across in the western world. I been in mental hostpitals, they couldnt help me. they give me depression medicine, i left the mental hospital after 3 weeks saying to the doctor, the #1 thing i want to do in life is seise to exist. I love life. Life is such a beautiful thing. I owe the amazon, the ancient ways a great debt, and in time i will repay in kind. Money is no equivalent for what I recved

    1. storiesandscars

      I am so happy you found an ANTIDOTE to western medicine, and depression, in Peru.
      It wasn't the right time for me, already being of compromised health, and on top of that, to be accompanied by individuals who did not have my best interests at heart, but rather wished me ill.
      I have no doubt some, that go to Peru like you did – for the purpose of healing, not mindless drug-tripping, experience amazing benefits.
      Thanks so much for sharing!
      scars xo

      1. Berry

        Hi there scars,

        I must begin by saying that I have never joined in the ayuhasca experience, so I cannot say anything about that. But, having been on many other suchlike journeys, I might be able to shed some light on the general experience of your trip to the amazon and inside yourself. I personally believe in the law of attraction, you can read about it in depth on wikipedia here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_attraction
        It basicly states: You invite into your life what you focus on.
        Which goes like this: You think 'I want more love, because I'm lacking.' This thought is then put out into the world in an energetic way, but also by your actions. You approach things in the way that you lack love. AKA: "Why doesn't she give me her attention?"
        In response you will never receive love that way because you're not opening up to love and allowing it in, you're actually focusing on and attracting in 'lack of love'.
        In this case, from the beginning of your trip you look into 'how is Ayahuasca viewed and used by the modern world' and you actively search for these realities. Rather than going for 'I will experience this as is it practiced by those who remember the old ways'.
        In return, the Universe serves you with what you are looking for. In this case: The lack of respect a medicine like this requests.

        Another way to look at this is to take an old saying which says: 'Good things come to those who wait' and change it into: 'Good things come to those who take their time.'

        You write for instance about a man who tattoos visions on peoples bodies (not a small thing). He has taken the time and effort to also produce a painting that is full of metaphor and is obviously NOT taking this particular avenue of reality lightly. You write that your taxi had arrived and had to leave. But if you were practicing a bit more of a 'flowing' timeschedule, I have no doubt in my mind that this tatoo arstist could have been a little pixie on your way to receiving the insightful journey you had intended to find (but were not putting out to the universe as a 'end-result-projection').
        It is my experience that often, the conversations that start off in one corner of the field of interest can end up being wildly productive in other corners, especially when it comes to sensitive subjects like entheogens. I could be wrong but I feel in your text that you wanted the experience rather than the learning that could be gotten from it, which makes all the difference in how you approach a time spent in altered states of consciousness.

        With love for the earth,

        ps. if you want to continue this conversation just email me on the email address below. I would be interested.

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